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Engine Room on Norwegian Epic

Behind the Scenes Ship Tours
I am one of the luckier cruise ship fanatics;
I have seen many cruise ships from top to bottom, bridge to crew deck and funnels to 'fridges.

I saw much when I worked as a crewmember on five different ships in the '80s and '90s. Now, as a cruise industry reporter, I often see places I didn't see as a crewmember. Between the two roles I have probably seen the works on more ships than most people by far.

I have lived on "crew food" for months at a time. I once had to sleep in a ship's intensive care infirmary in a two foot wide bed four feet off the floor for two weeks when I joined a cruise ship that didn't have a single open staff cabin for me.

I have been to crew parties on the poop deck, also known as the rope deck at the stern of the ship, and I have seen crew messes and crew bars in action. I have seen older crew quarters where three crewmembers shared a room with barely enough floor space for two people to stand up at the same time. I have stood in line at crew stores to buy soap, shaving cream and Red Stripe Beer for half price.

I have taken crew stairways all the way from the top deck to the crew decks. On most ships there is one crew stairway that leads to the backstage area of the main theater where you can access the production show dressing rooms, costume storage rooms, scenery shops and sound and lighting control rooms. That was my domain as a crewmember.

As a reporter I have seen ship galleys, meat lockers, cold food storage and wine cellars. I have seen engine rooms with spinning propeller shafts on "screw-driven" ships like Norwegian Epic. You have to wear ear plugs in those rooms because the sound is deafening and the temperature is close to 90 degrees. I have seen laundries, dish washers and garbage and sewage collection and incineration facilities. I know the difference between gray and brown water and what they do with it.

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Now you can see many of the same places I have seen on "behind the scenes" tours offered by Norwegian, Princess, Carnival and (announced just yesterday) Royal Caribbean. These tours have different names, but they mostly feature the same areas of the ships.

The NCL tour is called the "Behind the Scenes" tour and it includes the bridge, laundry, galley, theater back stage and the environmental systems. Carnival has a "Behind the Fun" tour where you will visit the bridge, galley and engine control room. Princess calls their offering the "Ultimate Ship Tour" where you see the bridge, galley, engine control room, print shop, medical center, theater back stage and laundry room. Royal Caribbean's new "All Access Tour" includes the bridge, galley, backstage of the main theater, engine control room and other areas.

None of the tours include crew areas, unfortunately. In addition to my long ago crewmember years I have also toured newer crew areas, most recently on Norwegian Epic where Berlitz writer Doug Ward and I saw everything from the crew mess to the crew bar, day room, internet room and fitness center. But we were not allowed to take pictures.

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The modern cruise ship is a Mecca for crewmembers, especially compared to my days working on one of the oldest cruise ships to serve in modern times, the Norway (NCL retired her in 2003). On Norwegian Epic the crew fitness center rivaled the passenger facilities with all new equipment and plenty of it. The crew bar had a big screen TV and pool, ping pong, air hockey and foosball tables. A coffin-sized box contained thousands of DVDs for crewmembers to borrow freely and view on their own TVs. Yes, all crew cabins have a television with all the channels that passengers see plus a crew channel typically showing nothing but action movies and soccer matches - especially during the World Cup.

Speaking of pools, most crews also get a swimming pool located either on the rear rope deck or often on the bow of the ship with a generous sun deck, conveniently located where the officers on the bridge can scan with their navigational binoculars. Speaking of coffins, yes I have seen the rooms where they keep the bodies of people who pass away on cruises, but I was only allowed to enter after the guide made sure it was not occupied.

Although cruise ship crew quarters are off-limits, the bridge where they steer the ship and monitor most its functions is extremely interesting. The galley is as you probably expect; floor to ceiling stainless steel and tile floors. The engine control room is not the same as seeing the engines I have pictured above, which are huge noisy turbines emitting almost unbearable noise and heat. It is a rather quiet and sterile room with nothing but monitors and gauges - and two bleary-eyed officers in jumpsuits. Most medical centers are far more advanced than you would expect, but don't take that to mean they are like a hospital. They are made to revive and stabilize patients, not to perform surgery.

Most "behind the scenes" tours cost about $95 per person. They fill up quickly and can usually be booked only onboard, so ask about them as soon as your cruise starts.

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